Contact tracing apps could speed up identification of virus-sickened persons

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As we learn to live with COVID-19 in our midst, it’s important to be able to track where infected persons may have picked up the virus and who they have been in contact with prior to becoming infected.

That’s where contact tracing comes in.

There are apps that may be able to do that job, but some people are concerned it will intrude on their privacy.

If a person tests positive for the coronavirus health officials want to know how you got infected.

The traditional way of trying to determine that requires back-tracking a person’s activities in a process known as contact tracing.

Contract tracers are people who work to figure out who the infected person came into significant contact with, then follow up on that list of names urging those people to either monitor their symptoms or self-quarantine if they are symptomatic.

“Traditional contact tracing, where they have to do interviews, can take days,” said Rob Downs, the C.E.O. of  Managed IT Solutions.

You may also not know everyone you’ve been in contact with during the past two week period of time.

For example, if you were in a store, or attended an event with large crowds, you have no idea who the strangers were that you came into contact with.

But, your phone can help solve that problem, if you download an app that does contact tracing automatically.

“The apps are not checking your location, they are checking to see who you interacted with,” said Downs. “There is a difference between the two.”

Downs explained how the apps keep it anonymous. “What happens is both your phone and someone else’s phone are exchanging nonsensical information between each other.”

He said that nonsensical, anonymous information is then stored on your phone and only released if you are notified that someone else you’ve been in proximity with has the virus.

“If you become infected, to actually upload that data to the system requires a password or PIN (personal identification number) that your doctor has to supply,” said Downs. “You can’t just randomly upload phone data to the database.”

Although the data doesn’t identify you, or the location of where you became infected, like all tech—it can be abused.

“My biggest concern is whose going to be putting the apps out,” said Downs. “They may have followed the guidelines to make tracing work—but what else have they put in there?”

He said a tracing app like does not need to have access to your contacts, your camera or your location because it’s not supposed to know where you are.

Before you download the app, he said to carefully read its permissions page first so you’ll know what it has access to.

Don’t accept an app that goes far beyond its intended purpose.

Although new updates on smart phone operating systems are being sent to devices allowing them to do contact tracing, you must voluntarily download a contract tracing app yourself.

And the app won’t work until you install it.

Because the apps work via Bluetooth, he says you can turn off your phone’s Bluetooth system if you don’t want the app to collect data in certain locations.

He says some contact tracing apps also allow you to set “private time” so the app will “go to sleep” for a set period.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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